Meet 5 Savvy Entrepreneurs of Isla Mujeres

entrepreneur Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres is a small Caribbean island off the coast of Cancun, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Its name directly translates into the “Island of Women” and the island is known to be an ancient place of worship for the Mayan goddess Ixchel, who rules creativity, fertility, rainbows and childbirth. It is also said that in the 17th century, pirates would stash their women and children here while they went off pilfering, giving it the name and reputation of the Island of Women.

Only a few decades ago, it was a sleepy fishing village, but now it boasts an increasing number of tourists coming to experience the tropical beaches, clear blue water, delicious food and warm people. This has given rise to a number of opportunities for those with an entrepreneurial spirit with some incredible women creating new businesses all over the island. Meet five such business owners making waves on Isla Mujeres.

Welcome to Isla Mujeres

Welcome to Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres is a small Caribbean island off the coast of Cancun, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Its name directly translates into the “Island of Women” and the island is known to be an ancient place of worship for the Mayan goddess Ixchel, who rules creativity, fertility, rainbows and childbirth. It is also said that in the 17th century, pirates would stash their women and children here while they went off pilfering, giving it the name and reputation of the Island of Women.

Only a few decades ago, it was a sleepy fishing village, but now it boasts an increasing number of tourists coming to experience the tropical beaches, clear blue water, delicious food and warm people. This has given rise to a number of opportunities for those with an entrepreneurial spirit with some incredible women creating new businesses all over the island. Meet five such business owners making waves on Isla Mujeres.

Janeen Halliwell: Creator of We Move Forward, an International Women’s Conference

Janeen Halliwell: Creator of We Move Forward, an International Women’s Conference

Janeen Halliwell is a Canadian woman who says she “works pretty much from her suitcase.” While she is an executive director for an accreditation agency that helps non-profit organizations learn from and improve upon their work, she also remains fully engaged in pursuing her ultimate passion and purpose — “providing women with the inspiration, clarity and tools to move forward in a direction that serves them.” 

The output of that desire is the annual women’s conference, We Move Forward, held annually on Isla Mujeres to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8. Janeen has been on and off of the island for 11 years, loving the island so much that she purchased a casita here in 2004. “It is one of the most beautiful, quaint yet vibrant places I have ever been. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate place to hold a women’s conference than on the Island of Women!” she beams. 

What has been your experience as an entrepreneur in such a tourism driven location? 
There is the challenge of getting the message out that this part of Mexico is safe for women to travel to. Isla Mujeres is located off the shores of Cancun’s hotel district, and is easily accessible via a short ferry ride, with ferries leaving every 30 minutes to make a 17-minute crossing. Some women are concerned about safety, as well they find the plane, shuttle bus and ferry ride involved in getting to ‘Isla’ a little daunting. Other challenges have been minor, but do involve the ‘mañana’ approach — something that us ‘Type A’ North Americans could adopt more of, but can be prohibitive when it comes to meeting the needs of foreign business people and tourists who expect quick results.

Has your gender played a role in your experience as an entrepreneur here? If so, how?
I think money talks in Mexico — if you have the funds they’ll take you seriously, regardless of gender. However, I have pulled in some of the males on my We Move Forward team to join me in meetings where I need to establish urgency in producing results. There is still a ‘machismo’ society, and it never hurts to have some extra testosterone on your side of the boardroom table.

What advice would you give other women entrepreneurs, especially those interested in doing business internationally?
Learn and respect the culture. Remember that you are not back home, and that you have made a choice to do business in this foreign land. Do your best to learn the language. And, when you find yourself on the verge of sharing “how things get done back where I am from,” save your breath, as this does not matter to the locals and it really should not matter to you. You’re no longer in Kansas, Dorothy.

Raychelle Heath: Career Teacher and Artisan

Raychelle Heath: Career Teacher and Artisan

Raychelle Heath, or Ray as everyone calls her, is originally from Winnsboro, a small town in South Carolina, but considers herself to be a citizen of the world. She defines herself as a “career teacher,” since she teaches English, ESL, Spanish, and yoga in addition to being an artisan, making jewelry, paintings and batiks. 

Ray first moved to the island to be an English teacher but notes that the seed for her jewelry business was planted in Isla. After teaching in the Marshall Islands of Micronesia for a few years, she returned. Taking a walk around the island with Ray, it’s likely you’ll run into someone she knows because she has either taught them or their children! “Isla was the place I decided to land after leaving public education because it was close to home, open to artists, and I have a supportive base here,” Ray explains. Now she teaches yoga classes five or six days a week for a broad community of local Isleñas, expats and tourists, in addition to working online both tutoring and selling her artwork. 

What has been your experience as an entrepreneur in such a tourism driven location? 
The most difficult part of being an entrepreneur here, for me, is working through seasons. During high season, sales are great and there are lots of students for the various classes I teach. During low season things quiet down quite a bit, and I have to lean more on my off-island sales through the Internet. The pro to this is that it has motivated me to diversify my modes of doing business. Always a good thing.

Has your gender played a role in your experience as an entrepreneur here? If so, how?
I think being a woman in the industries that I've chosen makes me more approachable. And, to be honest, most of what I do caters to women. I make jewelry for women. I teach a form of yoga that I think is very attractive to women. I would go so far to say that I'm fairly women-centric in how I operate. And there are a lot of women on Isla, whether visitors or residents, who are looking for the services I provide. It's a win-win. 

What advice would you give other women entrepreneurs, especially those interested in doing business internationally?
My advice would be to really establish your product/service first. Test it out on lots of different people, and come up with the absolute best manifestation of it. Also, know your audience. It's not about creating a box, but you do need to have a focus as a businessperson. Once you have a quality product/service and you know who your audience is, look for communities that need/want what you have to offer. This is pretty common advice for anyone going into business. I think the twist for someone looking to do it internationally is that you have to be willing to operate within different cultural expectations. It may mean working at a different price point. It may mean providing a service in a different way. Do your homework about the community that you are choosing to work in. What are their customs and taboos? How is what you're providing unique? And how can you work in concert with local business people to make it a win-win for everyone.

Photo credit: ekirkphotography

Tiffany Lanier: Wedding Planner and Owner of SunHorse Weddings

Tiffany Lanier: Wedding Planner and Owner of SunHorse Weddings

Tiffany Lanier is from Kasson, Minnesota, but grew up moving every few years between New York and southeast Minnesota. She first came to Isla Mujeres in 2000 for her best friend’s wedding — a wedding she helped plan. After that she fell in love with island, returning a year later to visit friends she’d made there. On that trip, she decided to drop everything, quit her corporate job and spend five months living on the island. Everyone thought she was crazy: why would a single mom of an 8-year-old with a mortgage and car payments leave a “great” job with benefits? 

In order to fund her idea to spend winters in Mexico, she decided at the advice of a co-worker to start a wedding planning business to help couples get married on the island. She remembered how difficult is was for her to navigate the planning process for her friend’s wedding and found it a viable business and niche. Her oldest brother designed her first website, then she was up and running. Tiffany reflects that she had five weddings booked before she even officially moved. “Did I mention that I had no idea what I was doing?” she laughs. “But for some reason it was the most natural decision I have ever made.” Now, she has more than 300 weddings under her belt and SunHorse is the premier wedding company on the island, averaging 30-35 weddings each year. 

What has been your experience as an entrepreneur in such a tourism driven location? 
Wedding planning in a tourist location means that the island offers plenty of activities and things to do and eat for all the guests. By using the best of the island and incorporating the positive aspects of it, we can give each wedding a unique experience. The favorite activity right now is the Golf Cart Scavenger Hunt around the island for all the guests. It allows people to get out and explore areas that they might not otherwise see as well as giving back to the local community at the same time. The island is so rich in culture and interesting hidden places that it is fun to show people that side of it. Isla Mujeres is also full of great hotels and restaurants, surrounded by crystal blue water and palm trees. What is not to love?

Has your gender played a role in your experience as an entrepreneur here? If so, how?
When I first moved to Mexico it was a little more difficult mainly because I didn’t know the language or culture better. As a woman I just needed to learn how to deal with “macho” business owners (which is really only about 10%). Other than that, it was more cultural things to learn like how to talk business and when.   

What advice would you give other women entrepreneurs, especially those interested in doing business internationally?
Throw out the textbook and pay more attention to the people around you. Each person is different and each culture is different. I find that there are different practices when dealing with a business owner from Mexico City versus Cancun. Open your mind and trust your gut. I am always striving for continuous improvement, innovation and inspiration to move forward. Having this mentality has helped me to stay open and connect with people. And any time that I feel that I am in a rut, I travel. Getting out of your headspace and seeing something new is the birthplace of great ideas.

The Women of Taller Artesanias de Mujeres

The Women of Taller Artesanias de Mujeres

Taller Artesanias de Mujeres is a local women’s cooperative that makes beautiful, ornately beaded jewelry. A few Isleña women started it in 1993 and over time more women, along with some men and children, started to come by and learn about jewelry making. Now it includes 45 women, seven girls, four men and three boys from ages seven and up. 

Their small shop located in La Gloria, a lively neighborhood in the middle of the island, is lined with dazzling beaded necklaces, earrings, belts, bags and rings of every color imaginable. On different days, you’ll meet different artisans sitting at a long table making jewelry, chatting and laughing as you shop. The cooperative shop allows these women, and men, to work collectively to make money for their families and each other. Each piece has a tag with the name of who made the piece so that a portion of the sales go directly to that artisan while the rest goes towards purchasing more beads and other supplies. I spoke to Cecilia Marim Avila, an artisan who helps manage the storefront, about the value of being able to provide economic support to a family while still being caretakers at home. 

What has been your experience as an entrepreneur in such a tourism driven location? 
We depend a lot on tourism to survive. Mostly, we, the people of the island, dedicate ourselves to fishing, boat tours, and the artisan work that is done here. And mostly, the tourists are the ones who buy the boat tours and stay in hotels, and so on. They buy a lot.

Has your gender played a role in your experience as an entrepreneur here? If so, how?
We don't feel less pressure being women. On the contrary, we are very proud to work and take care of our homes and keep moving forward. And we have our own methods of moving forward, making sure that our children are not left uncared for in the process. We are working to support them. And here at the bead cooperative, we help each other.

What advice would you give other women entrepreneurs, especially those interested in doing business internationally?
I think it is pretty easy to set up a cooperative. There have been people who really like our work and they want to promote it in other places. People from many different places have come and made us propositions to start working with them. But we have [turned them down]. We are here, and when people come here we show them our projects. And we show them how the work is done, if they want to know. And if they want to learn, we teach them here.

Julie Lee Fraga: Film Producer, Website Designer and Photographer

Julie Lee Fraga: Film Producer, Website Designer and Photographer

Isla Mujeres became Julie Lee Fraga’s home over 25 years ago back when the island had unpaved sand streets, few phones, no cable or satellite and less than 30 foreign residents living there full-time. The Berkeley, California, native first visited on vacation in 1989 and fell in love with the island and the man who is now her husband. Though most of her work experience was doing theater and film in Los Angeles and New York, she and her newlywed husband Marco opened a small restaurant downtown called La Cazuela M&J that specializes in a deliciously decadent egg dish from Marco’s hometown of Guadalajara. (It’s a special family recipe.)

Once the restaurant took off and her son entered kindergarten, she had extra free time and turned to her other passion: computers. She built Isla’s first tourism website and 14 years later the first iPhone app for Isla Mujeres. Julie has since grown her business and now designs websites for Isla women entrepreneurs and various clients all over North America. Through a chance meeting, she began working with a New York-based documentary filmmaker who was traveling in Isla and they just recently opened their own production company, Lucky Cat Pictures. She glows when acknowledging that this is all happening “from the warmth and comfort of Isla.” And adds, “God Bless Skype!”

What has been your experience as an entrepreneur in such a tourism driven location? 
My experience as an entrepreneur of various businesses on Isla over the course of 25 years has been diverse, exciting, challenging, exhausting and exhilarating and sometimes a bloody headache. For the restaurant the low season months, when the island’s occupancy rate is 20% or less, can be a challenge so you have to plan for it. I’ve seen many business do great during the high season and then are surprised when it doesn’t last all year, often going out of business because they didn’t plan ahead.

Has your gender played a role in your experience as an entrepreneur here? If so, how?
For me yes, gender has played a major role. Not so much now but definitely back in the day. I’m an American woman married to a well-respected Mexican man. In some ways Isla back then was like the 1950s. As a woman and as a foreigner, you had to tread softly, slowly and very respectfully. There was a whole different standard and set of rules for a woman in my circumstances than a foreign woman on her own. It can still be a bit hard to get your mind around in this day and age but nevertheless true.

What advice would you give other women entrepreneurs, especially those interested in doing business internationally?
The general game is the same wherever you are. It’s the little things that can break you, especially when doing business internationally. I believe one of the most important things is flexibility. Flexibility in your product or service, the way you conduct business, even your business hours. What works in California or New York doesn’t necessarily work elsewhere. “Respect and honor” should be your motto.

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